A Timeline History of the Rochester Subway

This article was scraped from Rochester Subway. This is a blog about Rochester history and urbanism has not been published since 2017. The current owners are now publishing link spam which made me want to preserve this history.. The original article was published January 02, 2009 and can be found here.

1825, Erie Canal completed

By 1900 the canal is antiquated; too narrow for modern barges, many lift-bridges downtown tie up traffic, and many consider it an eyesore

1905, funding approved to widen the Erie Canal and reroute it south of the city


  • State gives cities first rights to buy canal right-of-way after abandonment
  • Rochester Chamber of Commerce hires city planners to find the best use for the right-of-way
  • Planners recommend building an automotive highway
  • Rochester's leaders see this as unrealistic; 3,600 automobiles in Monroe County at the time
  • Some propose using the right-of-way for street railway service
  • Rochester already has an extensive streetcar network

There are five major railroads with stations in Rochester:

  • NY Central RR
  • Baltimore & Ohio RR
  • Pennsylvania RR
  • Erie RR
  • Lehigh Valley RR

Between 1900-1910, four interurban lines are built into Rochester:

  • Rochester & Syracuse (east rochester, fairport, macedon, palmyra, auburn, syracuse)
  • Rochester Lockport & Buffalo (spencerport, brockport, medina, buffalo, niagara falls)
  • Rochester & Eastern (pittsford, bushnell's basin, victor, canandaigua, seneca falls)
  • Rochester & Sodus Bay (Webster, Ontario, Williamson, Sodus)

With more automobiles appearing on the streets, Interurbans were becoming unwelcome on Main Street, sometimes referred to as the "Aisle of Death"

Rochester's population was growing rapidly and expected to reach 2 Million

Freight service into and out of Rochester was also a necessity

1912, City Hall approves $1.8 MM to build subway using canal and aqueduct. It would officially be called the Rochester Rapid Transit and Industrial Railroad (a.k.a. Rochester subway)

1919, Last boat passes through on the Canal

1920, the Canal is drained

   City buys the Canal right-of-way including adjacent sections in Greece, Brighton, Pittsford
   Mayor Edgerton (Republican) signs ordinance to begin construction

1922, (May) Mayor Clarence Van Zandt (Republican) breaks ground using a golden shovel

1923, (Spring) Mayor and city engineers inspect the project; one of them enthusiastically stated, "the old Erie Canal made Rochester, the new subway railway is to make for a greater Rochester."

1924, (Spring) City officials take first ride on subway

1924, (August) Broad Street opens with a parade
   The long construction period caused some to question the City and criticize the project calling the $1.8 million dollar underground railway "an adventure in optimism" and a white elephant

1927, (October) NYS Railways (a subsidiary of NY Central Railroad) agrees to operate the subway. They already operate the streetcars and two interurban lines.

1927, (November 30) subway officially opens.
   The fare is 9C/.
   Only the eastern end of the line is electrified.

1927, (December 2) Mayor Martin O'Neil (Republican) orders a demonstration run. Prominent citizens including George Eastman are invited to ride.

East from Downtown (trip time ~20 minutes)

  • Court St. (Erie RR and LVRR)
  • Meigs-Goodman
  • Monroe Ave. (Monroe Ave Streetcar)
  • Culver Rd. (5 minutes to downtown)
  • Colby St.
  • Winton Rd. (7.5 minutes to downtown)
  • East Ave. (Rochester & Syracuse)
  • Halfway (NY Central RR)
  • Highland Ave.
  • Ashbourne
  • Elmwood Ave.
  • Sunset
  • Rowlands (Rochester & Eastern)

West from Downtown (trip time ~11 minutes)

  • West Main-Oak St. (B&O RR and Penn. RR)
  • Lyell Ave. (Roch. Lockport & Buf. RR)
  • Edgerton Park (streetcar to Kodak Park)
  • Emerson St. (Dewey Ave. Streetcar)
  • Glenwood Ave.
  • Lexington Ave.
  • Driving Park
  • General Motors (est. 1937)

By mid-1920s streetcar systems across the country were already struggling due to competition from private automobiles

1926, there are now 70,000 vehicles in Monroe County

1929, Great Depression

  • NYS Railways fell into bankruptcy
  • By 1931 all the interurban railroads were gone, and a major reason for the subway in the first place; subway becomes a railway line with no connections
  • City Hall begins defunding subway maintenance; weeds in the subway bed; homeless population begins using tunnels

1934, Rundel Library built over subway

1937, Harold McFarlin becomes Commissioner of Commerce & Railroads and he begins to make efforts to save the subway from financial collapse

  • completes passenger & freight service to General Motors plant
  • purchases 12 new high speed electric cars
  • all stations refurbished
  • crews sent out to remove the weeds from the rail bed
  • Ridership numbers begin to increase after 7 years in the red
  • McFarlin plans to extend the eastern end 1,200 ft. to Monroe Ave. in Pittsford (using Works Progress Administration (WPA) funding)

1937, (August 2) operation of subway is turned over to Rochester Transit Corp. (RTC)

1940, subway cars are repainted with a new green color scheme to give them a more modern look

1940, (Sunday, September 23) motorman Michael Keys is killed when Car 60 derails and hits a pole; high speed and fog are blamed

McFarlin states that he believes Rochester needs high speed rail service to maintain economic growth because bus service is too slow (not everyone agrees and many consider buses an improvement over the aging streetcars)

1941, (March)

  • Rochester becomes one of the first cities in America to replace all of its streetcars with buses
  • Almost overnight all of Rochester's streetcar tracks were removed and trolley cars scrapped
  • With removal of the streetcars the subway lost its service from Edgerton to Kodak Park
  • Subway riders became limited to those who lived immediately along its shrinking route
  • Many now describe the subway as "starting nowhere and going nowhere"

1941, (December) America enters WWII

  • Riding the subway becomes the patriotic thing to do
  • With emergency rationing of tires, gasoline, and metal, Rochesterians are urged to use the subway
  • A popular slogan was "Walk 5 minutes and save 15"
  • Subway ridership enters its peak period
  • New car barn was built at the General Motors loop and repair crews were kept on extra shifts
  • McFarlin continues to push for the subway extension to Pittsford despite cuts to federal WPA funding. But without the federal money, City Council is faced with having to pay the entire cost, and they refuse to tax city residents for a project that they believe will only serve the suburbs.
  • A new Clinton Avenue subway station WAS approved by City Council, but wartime restrictions halted the project. Clinton Ave never had a subway station.

1944, (December 11 & 12) blizzard paralyzes Rochester region, halting bus service; subway continues to run uninterrupted

1945, (September) WWII ends; during the war subway ridership had tripled

1947, ridership hits all time high with over 5.1 Million passengers


  • With the removal of wartime restrictions and increased automobile use, ridership begins to decline
  • NYS Thruway was being planned to pass 10 miles south of the city.
  • plans to convert the subway into a highway were revealed
  • Harold McFarlin, the subway's primary champion, loses hope of preserving the subway and resigns from his position with the City.
  • RTC cuts service and switches to one-man operation resulting in delays and further loss of ridership
  • RTC threatens to stop service in 1950 unless City pays for operating losses; City agrees to pay
  • 10 streetcars that had been spared from scrapping and stored in the subway for emergency use (but never used) are scrapped

1952, Service reductions

  • Sunday and holiday service are eliminated
  • nighttime and Saturday service are reduced
  • Maintenance is reduced
  • To save money, weed killer is diluted which unintentionally turns the herbicide into fertilizer - the weeds thrive

1953, City Council pledges to promote the subway, but other politicians are actively promoting the highway plan

1954 (September 9), In a secret meeting, Rochester's new Republican City Council votes to discontinue passenger service on the last day of 1954 so the right-of-way could be used as a connector highway to the Thruway. University Avenue was the other option.

  • Continuing subway service in the median of the highway was rejected as too costly.
  • Freight service would continue on the western end.
  • Due to highway construction delays, subway service continued on a month by month basis until June 1956

1956, (April) Governor Averell Harriman signs bill designating conversion of subway's eastern end into Interstate 490

1956, (June 30) last day of subway service

  • People came from as far away as Canada and California for a last ride
  • Extra cars were added on the last day
  • Cars ran until 1am

Car 60 - All subway cars scrapped except Car 60

Car 60 was donated to Rochester Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society and moved a railroad museum near watertown, Rail City

1968, Car 60 is loaned to Albany and sat deteriorating in a shed at a Thruway maintenance yard

1957, (August 31) last day of freight service

In 1960s many city residents move to suburbs

In 1970s in response to an international oil crisis, proposals are introduced to build a light rail line using portions of the old subway route but the plans go nowhere

1984, the City begins to sell remaining subway land on the western end for development

1997, Gannett moves printing operation to Greece; stops using subway to carry printing supplies

1998, Car 60 is handed over to Genesee Valley Railroad Museum in Rush/Henrietta

2005, A group of citizens (Subway Erie Canal Revitalization or SECR) starts a movement called "Chill the Fill" to try to stop the City from filling the subway tunnel. The City argues that $1.2 MM is spent each year repairing the tunnel and road deck. Preservationists sought a moratorium until the community could come to a consensus about how best to reuse the site.

2010, Broad Street Tunnel Improvement Project begins, filling in the west end of the tunnel

2016, a planned luxury apartment building may seal off the east end of the tunnel

Chris Gemignani

Chris Gemignani

Rochester, NY, USA